Today I continue my series on Celebrating a Whole Life, which shares what inspires me about women I’ve met who live their lives creatively at a time when we often end up stuck in a conversation about trade-offs vs. having it all. Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on the topic from a few months ago again stirred the pot, yielding what I thought was a welcome flurry of conversations about the choices women make and the context in which they make those choices. I won’t dive into what I thought about the article, but I will say that I believe we are just at the beginning of a period when we are able to recognize versions of success that defy the traditional expectations of both professional and personal achievement. When we measure achievement based on things like meaning, fulfillment, purpose, and yes, happiness, and not only on title, position, or the ability to sacrifice all for family. Each post in this series is a celebration of women who are making bold choices and doing so in a way that is imbued with a true spark of joy.
Michele Jolin was perhaps the first woman I thought of when I decided to write this series. She joined Ashoka about a year after I did over a decade ago, and arrived just after having served as the Chief of Staff for President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. It was the most impressive title I had ever heard, and I knew before I even met Michele that she was a star. Once I did meet her, she exploded any notions I had of what it means to be a very smart, very accomplished, very-important-person. She was ridiculously warm, accessible, and committed to sharing her own stories (of success and failure) to help women that were coming after her to navigate both professional and personal pathways.
I was working as the associate for Ashoka’s Environmental Innovations Initiative at the time, and her job was to lead a parallel effort in education, an issue about which she was passionate. I immediately sought out an opportunity to work with her on a gathering of Ashoka Fellows from around the world all focused on education which would take place in South Africa. I saw it as both an opportunity to get out into the world and close to the Ashoka social entrepreneurs, but also as a chance to learn from Michele.
Throughout this project, and particularly during out time together in South Africa, I saw in Michele someone who was at ease with her own leadership – able to respectfully facilitate a group of strong-willed social innovators with diverse opinions about how to improve education and protect children, and then take insights from those discussions and push them to the highest levels of policy change. She blended hard and soft, showing the patience required by this diverse community of Ashoka Fellows and the discipline to move things forward when needed.
I have tried to emulate these qualities since, but the greatest lessons I learned from Michele came not from a few months together planning a gathering of social entrepreneurs. They have come from having stayed in touch for over thirteen years, and being privileged to have watched her make choices about her life, career and family that have been a model and an inspiration to me. She is someone who truly deserves to be celebrated for building a whole life when at every moment she has been faced with tremendous opportunities and has chosen carefully and wisely in order to create a mosaic of priorities that fit together beautifully.
When I first met her, she seemed to be at a critical juncture, shifting from a period of prioritizing her career (which had obviously paid off) to prioritizing her personal life and her desire to start a family. At her wedding, and then later meeting her first child, I saw in her a wisdom to go after those things she valued with focus and passion, whether it was an opportunity to shape economic and social policy, or start a family. I observed with keen interest when she developed a flexible schedule at Ashoka, allowing her to continue to have an impact on an issue that mattered to her, while being present for her family the way she wanted to be.
When I had my first child, she came to see me with her three children in tow, and I was again inspired by her willingness to embrace the chaos of a large family while still relentlessly pursuing opportunities to shape policy and champion social innovation.
I was perhaps never more inspired by her, though, than when she told me she had decided to take one year away from work at a moment when the demands of her life made her feel like she needed to make a shift. Her clarity and confidence to do what was right for her and her family, trusting that she would pull all the pieces together again when the time was right, has stayed in my mind as a hallmark of what it takes to follow a unique path in life.
Michele is someone who has worked on both the domestic and international fronts at the highest levels to create lasting positive change. She has also stood as someone who fearlessly makes her family a priority, and she has been a friend and a role model that has continuously opened up new worlds of possibilities for me. For that and so much more, I celebrate her.
Below are Michele’s responses to my five standard questions:
1. How do you define success?
One word: Balance.
2. What is your greatest struggle?
Guilt: Feeling guilty about never having enough time for friends, kids, family or work.
3. What are you proudest of?
My 3 children.
4. Who inspires you, in terms of how they live their life?
My 3 children. My oldest because she is determined, big-hearted and brave; my middle because he is imaginative, free-spirited and fearless; my youngest because she is strong, resilient, fun-loving, uninhibited and hilarious. Also, Ashoka Fellow Sister Cyril Mooney (and many other social entrepreneurs around the world) because she is optimistic, effective and passionately focused on making life better for the most vulnerable children.
5. If you had a free 8th day of the week, what would you do with it?